Adrian Raine and the Biology of Crime

If you climb the narrow, timeworn staircase to Adrian Raine’s office in the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, one of the first things you’ll encounter is a framed triptych of PET scans representing the metabolic activity of three adult brains.

In the left-hand image, spots of deep orange glow against frontal lobes awash in a healthy-looking yellow. The colors boil down to a fairly straightforward message: Plenty going on up here. It’s just what you’d expect from a normal control subject.

The brain on the right tells a different story. Orange is absent from front of this scan, and there’s not much yellow either. Black predominates. The prefrontal cortex has a particularly different look; Engine stalled would seem an apt description. This picture is not at all like the first, but it does bear a resemblance to 40 others Raine has produced—each culled from the brain of a convicted murderer.

The image in the middle of the triptych is another thing entirely. There’s yellow and orange and red all over the place, frontal lobes and rear brain alike. This image is not unlike the scan of Raine’s own brain, which hangs nearby. If one were to abandon science in favor of just-so stories, the patterns of glucose uptake on display here might be marshaled as evidence of the intellectual rigor, self-control, and contingency planning that would serve any professor well. But the middle brain image does not belong to Raine. It belongs to a man who meticulously killed 64 people while successfully covering his tracks for a dozen years.

“And that’s the exception that proves the rule!” Raine exclaims, pointing at the serial murderer’s PET scan. “Here’s a man who was able to regulate and plan and control his behavior—and escaped detection for 12 years.” Behavioral control is exactly what most murderers lack, he says. “And essentially it’s the murderer who is impulsive and emotional who has the poor frontal functioning—which fits somewhat with what we know about the frontal cortex. It’s involved in planning, regulation, executive functions, thinking ahead, regulating people, and also controlling regulation over more basic primitive emotions generated by deeper brain structures, like the amygdala, which gives rise to fearful reactivity.”

As a Richard Perry University Professor with appointments in the criminology department within the School of Arts and Sciences and the department of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, Raine studies crime from an unusual perspective. His colleagues at the Jerry Lee Center come at it by way of sociology, legal studies, public policy, emergency medicine, and the like. Raine focuses on the body and the brain.

Why do some children grow up to be psychopathic criminals? Social and economic circumstances play a big role, as do familial influences and peer groups. But as Raine has demonstrated through experimental research, there are also biological factors at play. A low resting heart rate correlates with antisocial and aggressive behavior among children. As those framed PET scans illustrate, murderers seem unusually likely to have prefrontal brain impairment. In a recent comparison of 23 psychopaths with 22 normal control subjects, Raine revealed that two of the amygdala’s 13 distinct nuclei were structurally compromised in the former group.

This does not mean that biology is destiny. Just because a kid has a low resting heart rate doesn’t mean his parents should start packing for the nearest juvenile detention unit. “Look,” says the animated Brit, who worked as an airline accountant and a prison psychologist before becoming a professor. “If you’re in an urban, negative home environment and you’re a stimulation seeker with a low physiological arousal, you look out the window and what do you see? You see drug trading, you see drive-by shooting, you see guns, and you say, Hey, that’s fun! But if you’re brought up in a middle-class environment, you go skiing, you go bungee-jumping … Depending on the environment, there will be different outcomes.”

Furthermore, nature and nurture are not the mutually exclusive categories they once seemed to be. The last decade or two of brain research and genetic science argue strongly for a model better characterized as nature via nurture. For example, the criminology literature has long pegged poor nutrition as a risk factor for antisocial behavior. “But poor nutrition is going to actually affect the brain structure and brain function,” Raine says. “And that fits into our model, which is that poor brain function predisposes people to antisocial behavior.”

Identify kids who display the relevant traits, the idea goes, and it might be possible to intervene with extra support before they break into the neighbor’s house. Yet that prospect raises the kinds of questions that infuriate conservatives and liberals alike. The former abhor the idea of reclassifying criminals as victims. The latter worry that singling out at-risk individuals based on anatomical characteristics could amount to the 21st-century equivalent of the mark of Cain. For his part, Raine isn’t proposing amnesty for gangsters and goons, but he does think his research ought to have some bearing on the way society punishes those who break its laws.

“To what extent do we forgive or excuse people who commit homicide because they have brain dysfunction?” he asks. “The law tends to look at free will and the question of responsibility in black and white. You’re responsible or you’re not. But frankly, it’s like any trait—there are individual differences in degree of responsibility or degree in freedom of will … The question is now becoming whether or not neuroscience research should inform, alter, and titrate our laws to better take into account people who have broken brains.”

His answer is yes on all counts. Many American states already make special allowances for “mentally incompetent” offenders—exempting those with IQs under 70 from the death penalty, for instance. Shouldn’t sentencing guidelines also take into account deficits in the prefrontal cortex that may compromise moral decision-making?

But the deeper question is whether criminal behavior in and of itself constitutes a psychiatric disorder, akin to depression or schizophrenia. Raine argues that there’s enough evidence to answer in the affirmative—even if it means pulling down one of the central pillars of Enlightenment egalitarianism.

“Are we all equal?” Raine asks. “The law views us as all knowing right from wrong unless we can demonstrate it, and therefore if you know right from wrong, we are all equal. Well, we’re not, frankly. We’re simply not all equal. That’s what’s missing in the law … Some people are compromised. Isn’t it morally reprehensible of us to be punishing everyone equally when we’re not equal?”

A century ago, Western society viewed schizophrenics as wild and dangerous, best kept in shackles. Today we treat their condition as a disease with biological and genetic causes. “Prisoners were left behind then, but I think they’re no different than mentally ill people,” Raine says. “Is it the criminals’ fault that scientists have not come up with an effective intervention?”

There is certainly no shortage of professors who float such lofty opinions within the safe and abstract realm of academe. Raine may be the only one to have had his throat cut by a Turkish outlaw.

In a hotel room not far from the Aegean Sea in 1989, he awoke in the middle of the nisght aware of someone standing above him.

“Without any thought in my mind, I leap out of that bed like a tiger and put my hands around this guy’s throat,” he recalls. “And we fight. He’s hitting me, banging me. I see white light. He hits me hard against the wall. I hear my girlfriend screaming, screaming there … I’m able to push him out the window, turn on the light, and then I see blood all down my chest. I didn’t realize that when he was punching me in the throat and the head, he was punching me with a knife.”

Fortunately the blade had snapped off earlier in the scuffle, leaving only a couple millimeters of metal sticking out from the handle. After getting stitched up, Raine identified his assailant in a police lineup and the two men appeared in court.

“You know, I wanted a pound of flesh,” he says. “I wanted him to go through exactly what I did. I wanted his throat to be cut, too. I wanted him to be beaten up the way I’d been beaten up. That changed my perspective, so frankly, I can see very clearly both sides of the coin.”

True to form, the professor has even translated his own brush with life-threatening violence into biological terms—suggesting an evolutionary rationale for supporting the death penalty.

“Feelings of vengeance, indignation at offenses—these are deep-seated evolutionary emotions which have evolved to protect us as a species. It’s served us very well so far. Why abandon a tried and tested formula which stands up to the test of time?”

When it comes to the analytical formulas that have long dominated criminology, on the other hand, the psychologist in Raine sees plenty of room for refinement and addition. “In the past, we could look around us and see poverty, and witness discrimination,” and other determinants of criminal behavior, he says, “but we’ve never been able to see the inside of a person’s brain.”

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